Fungus Among Us — Mold forces students to relocate

When Sarah Russell, Glenview, Ill. senior, developed a cough this month, she originally attributed it to a cold. However, when her roommate Adrianna Thibault, New Baltimore senior, developed a respiratory reaction and congestion, both women noticed that they did not seem to be contagious. They believed that the cause of irritation was not due to a virus or bacteria but rather to mold found in their apartment, Munger 401.

Before fall break,  Lindsey Peterson, Novi senior and Munger 401 resident, noticed a black film on their bathroom vanity. After notifying Residential Life, air samples taken by Wonder Makers Environmental identified fungal spores which led to the discovery of mold growth underneath the bathroom and kitchen floors in addition to the vanity.

The women were relocated to Whitehouse while the clean-up occurred and returned to Munger 401 on Oct. 14.  Michael Wadsworth, director of Residential Life, said to his knowledge, this was  the first relocation on campus due to mold.

Mold is a rapidly growing type of fungus that reproduces by creating spores, said Dan Skean, professor of biology. The fungus releases spores from its filaments by the millions into the air, where they can act as allergens causing respiratory issues.

“These days we often live closed off from a free exchange of outside air in plastic-wrapped, insulated houses and other air-conditioned buildings, where higher concentrations of the spores can more easily develop,” Skean said.

Residential Life worked with Wonder Makers Environmental and Sunrise Cleaning and Construction Services to clean the apartment and take air samples post clean-up. The process included dry cleaning clothing and bedding, vacuum-cleaning textbooks and decontaminating everything the women had left behind. The women chose to throw out much of their food, including four cartons of eggs, milk and food in cardboard boxes.

The college has had only a few mold concentrations that involved remediation, said Don Masternak, managing director of Facilities Operations. 

“The majority of (mold) incidents in college residences have been usually isolated to showers, bathrooms, and basements,” Masternak said. “The costs for sampling, cleaning, and rebuilding vary greatly based on the project scale and time frame, but professional services are expensive.”

After the mold was removed, facilities replaced the wood and vinyl flooring with tile flooring. Windowsills displaying evidence of mold growth were replaced, and “air scrubbers” were used to filter the air.

According to a report by Wonder Makers Environmental, eight different types of fungal spores were found in the air sample, including aspergillus/penicillium-like spores, cladosporium and chaetomium.

A total of 3,937 fungal structures per cubic meter (structures/M3) of air were found in the kitchen. Outdoor levels were measured at 7,282 structures/M3. The kitchen levels exceeded standard mold remediation tests specifications, which state that indoor spore counts should not exceed 50 percent of what is outdoors.

Penicillium, which is the original source of the antibiotic penicillin, includes species that can spoil food or have spores that are airborne irritants. Aspergillum and chaetomium can cause respiratory problems and infections—especially in persons with weakened immune systems.

“Residential Life told us we had the cleanest room on campus–which we should after going through this situation,” Russell said.

Wadsworth said that he is uncertain how long the slow-growing mold had been living between the wood and vinyl flooring.

“With these types of floors, moisture could get under the initial flooring surface,” Wadsworth said. “Anytime there is a spill (tenants) should make sure that it is cleaned up thoroughly—if they are not able to then they should contact facilities.”

 In addition to cleaning Munger 401, Wonder Makers Environmental also tested air quality in common areas of Munger Place Apartments and also in the apartment below 401, but did not discover further elevated spore levels, Wadsworth said.

“There is no reason for us to believe (mold) is present elsewhere on campus,” Wadsworth said. “I realize it was difficult timing for the residents with mid-terms, but the response from facilities was astounding.”

Russell, however, was not entirely satisfied with the state of their apartment upon returning.

After moving back in, the women found the bathroom toilet located in the shower and a sink faucet not completely  installed. Russell said the women previously found mold in their bathroom at the beginning of the semester, and Facilities Operations initially removed a section of their vanity and replaced it.

“I wish Residential Life had taken air samples initially when we first noticed the mold in August,” Russell said. “The way this situation was handled was poor and it’s unfortunate we had to deal with this situation.”

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